The Deception Spiral: Corporate Obfuscation Leads to Perceptions of Immorality and Cheating Behavior

  • David M. Markowitz (Creator)
  • Maryam Kouchaki (Creator)
  • Jeff Hancock (Creator)
  • Francesca Gino (Creator)



In four studies, we evaluated how corporate misconduct relates to language patterns, perceptions of immorality, and unethical behavior. First, we analyzed nearly 190 codes of conduct from S&P 500 manufacturing companies and observed that corporations with ethics infractions had more linguistically obfuscated codes than corporations without ethics infractions. Next, we tested perceptions of a company based on values statements modified by obfuscation (Study 2). Participants perceived low-obfuscation companies as more moral, warmer, and more trustworthy than high-obfuscation companies. Finally, behavioral experiments (Studies 3a and 3b) revealed that group members cheat more after reading a high-obfuscation values statement than a low-obfuscation values statement. The results provide evidence of a potentially troublesome cycle: corporate unethicality has linguistic traces, can affect how people appraise a company, and can change ethical behavior.
Date made available2020
PublisherSAGE Journals

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